Readers who are familiar with PWL Capital’s philosophy will know we don’t make predictions about where the markets are headed in the coming months or years.

We believe no one can predict the markets, despite all the time and money spent by active fund managers, analysts and media commentators trying to do just that.

Look no further than 2020 for the proof of the futility of forecasting market movements. No one predicted the COVID crash or the remarkable rally that followed.

Nevertheless, financial planning requires investors to consider not only personal factors such as their time horizon and tolerance for risk, but also to make assumptions about future rates of return.

What mix of stocks and bonds might provide you with the level of growth you need to achieve your retirement income goals? How bumpy might the ride be? To answer these questions, financial planners use expected rates of return and risk levels for different asset classes.

At PWL, Research Director Raymond Kerzérho provides us with his best estimate of stock and bond returns over the next 30 to 40 years. His projections are based on current asset prices and their return history. The methodology Raymond uses is explained in this paper.

In his latest report, his analysis produced an expected real return (not including inflation) of 4.7% for global equities, or a nominal return of 6.0%, if you factor in 1.3% inflation going forward. Of course, these are averages; there will be lots of ups and downs along the way.

Following a segment on expected returns in a recent episode of our Capital Topics podcast, a listener wrote in to ask why equity returns are expected to be so low in coming years.

The first observation is that they are not that low by historical standards. Over the last 121 years, global equities provided an annualized real return of 5.2%, according to Credit Suisse’s Global Investment Returns Yearbook. Over the last 20 years, global equity markets generated a similar real return of 5.0% per year.

However, strong returns over the last decade might be colouring investor perceptions of how much they should be earning from stock market. Recall that in 2011, the stock market was starting to recover from the financial crisis and stock prices, especially in the U.S., were much lower than they are today. Since then, global equities have generated an annualized return of almost 11%.

Today, it’s a different story. The Shiller-CAPE price-to-earnings ratio has risen to 35 from 21 in 2011 for the U.S. market. The price appreciation has been less dramatic in Europe, but stocks are still much higher than a decade ago.

This is a key reason why equity returns are expected to be lower in the future. Combining lower equity and bonds returns, we conclude a portfolio composed of 60% equities and 40% bonds has an expected return of just 4.34% annually. This is almost two percentage point lower than 6.15% that markets actually returned over the past 20 years.

What does it mean for investors? First, it’s a strong signal to temper your own expectations. In a low-return environment, investors are often tempted to take undue risk in an effort to beat the market.

Egged on by the financial media, they fall prey to recency bias, chasing the latest hot investment idea and ending up getting burned. Last year, they might have decided to load up on high-flying growth stocks. But markets can turn around quickly and without warning. So far this year, value stocks are outperforming growth by a wide margin.

The second conclusion investors should draw from lower future returns is that it’s critical to capture every bit of return that is available. That’s why at PWL we put so much importance on portfolio diversification, tax efficiency and rebalancing.

Building wealth over the long term requires you to make decisions based on the best available evidence and then patiently stick with your plan through good times and bad. A realistic view of future returns is an important part of the equation.